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Comanche Creek, Texas
Something was wrong.
Sheriff Reed Hardin eased his Smith and Wesson from his leather shoulder holster and stepped out of his mud-scabbed pickup truck. The heels of his rawhide boots sank in the rain-softened dirt. He lifted his head. Listened.
It was what he didn't hear that bothered him.
Yeah, something was definitely wrong.
There should have been squawks from the blue jays or the cardinals. Maybe even a hawk in search of its breakfast. Instead there was only the unnerving quiet of the Texas Hill Country woods sardined with thick mes-quites, hackberries and thorny underbrush that bulged thick and green with spring growth. Whatever had scared off the birds could be lurking in there. Reed was hoping for a coyote or some other four-legged predator because the alternative put a knot in his gut.
After all, just hours earlier a woman had been murdered a few yards from here.
With his gun ready and aimed, Reed made his way up the steep back path toward the cabin. He'd chosen the route so he could look around for any evidence he might have missed when he'd combed the grounds not long after the body had been discovered. He needed to see if anything was out of place, anything that would help him make sense of this murder. So far, nothing.
Except for his certainty that something was wrong.
And he soon spotted proof of it.
There were footprints leading down and then back up the narrow trail. Too many of them. There should have been only his and his deputy's, Kirby Spears, since Reed had given firm orders that all others use the county road just a stone's throw from the front of the cabin. He hadn't wanted this scene contaminated and there were signs posted ordering No Trespassers.
He stooped down and had a better look at the prints. "What the hell?" Reed grumbled.
The prints were small and narrow and with a distinctive narrow cut at the back that had knifed right into the gray-clay-and-limestone dirt mix.
Who the heck would be out here in high heels?
He thought of the dead woman, Marcie James, who'd been found shot to death in the cabin about fourteen hours earlier. Marcie hadn't been wearing heels. Neither had her alleged killer. And Reed should know because the alleged killer was none other than his own deputy, Shane Tolbert.
Cursing the fact that Shane was now locked up in a jail he used to police with Reed and Kirby, Reed elbowed aside a pungent dew-coated cedar branch and hurried up the hill. It didn't take him long to see more evidence of his something-was-wrong theory. There were no signs of his deputy or the patrol car.
However, there was a blonde lurking behind a sprawling oak tree.
Correction. An armed blonde. A stranger, at that.
She was tall, at least five-ten, and dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt that she'd tucked into the waist of belted dark jeans. Her hair was gathered into a sleek ponytail, not a strand out of place. And yep, there were feminine heels on her fashionable black boots. But her attire wasn't what Reed focused on. It was that lethal-looking Sig-Sauer Blackwater pistol gripped in her latex-gloved right hand. She had it aimed at the cabin.
Reed aimed his Smith and Wesson at her.
Maybe she heard him or sensed he was there because her gaze whipped in his direction. She shifted her position a fraction, no doubt preparing to turn her weapon on him, but she stopped when her attention landed on the badge Reed had clipped to his belt. Then, she did something that surprised the heck out of him.
She put her left index finger to her mouth in a shhh gesture.
Reed glanced around, trying to make sense of why she was there and why in Sam Hill she'd just shushed him as if she'd had a right to do it. He didn't see anyone other than the blonde, but she kept her weapon trained on the cabin.
He walked closer to her, keeping his steps light, just in case there was indeed some threat other than this woman. If so, then someone had breached a crime scene because the cabin was literally roped off with yellow crime-scene tape. And with the town's gossip mill in full swing, there probably wasn't anyone within fifty miles of Comanche Creek who hadn't heard about the latest murder.
Emphasis on the word latest.
Everyone knew to keep away or they'd have to deal with him. He wasn't a badass—most days, anyway— but people usually did as he said when he spelled things out for them. And he always spelled things out.
"I'm Sheriff Reed Hardin," he grumbled when he got closer.
Like her face, her name wasn't familiar to him. Who the devil was she?
She tipped her head towards the cabin. "I think someone's inside."
Well, there sure as hell shouldn't be. "Where's my deputy?"
"Running an errand for me."
That didn't improve Reed's mood. He was about to question why his deputy would be running an errand for an armed woman in fancy boots, but she shifted her position again. Even though she kept her attention nailed to the cabin, he could now see the front of her white shirt.
The sun's rays danced off the distinctive star badge pinned to it.
"You're a Texas Ranger?" he asked.
He hadn't intended for that to sound like a challenge, but it did. Reed couldn't help it. He already had one Ranger to deal with, Lieutenant Wyatt Colter, who'd been in Comanche Creek for days, since the start of all this mess that'd turned his town upside-down. Now, he apparently had another one of Texas's finest. That was two too many for a crime scene he planned to finish processing himself. He had a plan for this investigation, and that plan didn't include Rangers.
"Yes. Sergeant Olivia Hutton," she clarified. "CSI for the Ranger task force."
She spared him a glance from ice-blue eyes. Not a friendly glance either. That brief look conveyed a lot of displeasure.
Reed had seen that look before. He was a smalltown Texas sheriff, and to some people that automatically made him small-minded, stupid and incapable of handling a capital murder investigation. That attitude was one of the reasons for the so-called task force that included not only Texas Rangers but a forensic anthropologist and apparently this blonde crime-scene analyst.
As he'd done with Lieutenant Colter, the other Ranger, Reed would set a few ground rules with Sergeant Hutton. Later, that was. For now, he needed to figure out if anyone was inside the cabin. That was at the top of his mental list.
Reed didn't see anyone near either of the two back curtainless windows. Nor had the crime-scene tape been tampered with. It was still in place. Of course, someone could have ducked beneath it and gotten inside—after they'd figured out a way to get past the locked windows and doors. Other than the owner and probably some members of the owner's family, Reed and his deputy were the only ones with keys.
"Did you actually see anyone in the cabin?" he asked in a whisper.
She turned her head, probably so she could whisper as well, but the move put them even closer. Practically mouth to cheek. Not good. Because with all that closeness, he caught her scent. Her perfume was high-end, but that was definitely chocolate on her breath.
"I heard something," she explained. "Your deputy and I were taking castings of some footprints we found over there." She tipped her head to a cluster of trees on the east side of the cabin. "I wanted to get them done right away because it's supposed to rain again this afternoon."
Yeah, it was, and if they'd been lucky enough to find footprints after the morning and late-night drizzle, then they wouldn't be there long.
"After Deputy Spears left to send the castings to your office," she continued, "I turned to go back inside. That's when I thought I heard someone moving around in there."
Reed took in every word of her account. Every word. But he also heard the accent. Definitely not a Texas drawl. He was thinking East Coast and would find out more about that later. For now, he might have an intruder on his hands. An intruder who was possibly inside with a cabin full of potential evidence that could clear Shane's name. Or maybe it was the cabin's owner, Jonah Becker, though Reed had warned the rancher to stay far away from the place.
With his gun still aimed, Reed stepped out a few inches from the cover of the tree. "This is Sheriff Hardin," he called out. "If anyone's in there, get the hell out here now."
Beside him, Livvy huffed. "You think that's wise, to stand out in the open like that?"
He took the time to toss her a scowl. "Maybe it'd be a dumb idea in Boston, but here in Comanche Creek, if there's an intruder, it's likely to be someone who knows to do as I say."
"Not Boston," she snarled. "New York."
He gave her a flat look to let her know that didn't make things better. A Texas Ranger should damn well be born and raised in Texas. And she shouldn't wear high-heeled boots.
Or perfume that reminded him she was a woman.
Reed knew that was petty, but with four murders on his hands, he wasn't exactly in a generous mood. He extended that non-generous mood to anyone who might be inside that cabin.
"Get out here!" he shouted. And by God, it better happen now.
Nothing. Well, nothing except Livvy's spurting breath and angry mumbles.
"Just because the person doesn't answer you, it doesn't mean the place is empty," she pointed out.
Yeah. And that meant he might have a huge problem. He didn't want the crime scene compromised, and he didn't want to shoot anyone. Yet.
"How long were Deputy Spears and you out there casting footprints?" he asked.
"A half hour. And before that we were looking around in the woods."
That explained how her footprints had gotten on the trail. The castings and the woods search also would have given someone plenty of time to get inside. "I'm guessing Deputy Spears unlocked the cabin for you?"
The sergeant shook her head. "It wasn't necessary. Someone had broken the lock on a side window, apparently crawled in and then opened the front door from the inside."
Reed cursed. "And you didn't see that person when you went in?"
Another head shake that sent her ponytail swishing. "The place was empty when I first arrived. I checked every inch," she added, cutting off his next question: Was she sure about that?
So, he had possibly two intruders. Great. Dealing with intruders wasn't on his to-do list today.
Now, he cursed himself. He should have camped out here, but he hadn't exactly had the manpower to do that with just him and two deputies, including the one behind bars. He'd had to process Shane's arrest and interrogate him. He had been careful. He'd done everything by the book so no one could accuse him of tampering with anything that would ultimately clear Shane's name. Kirby Spears had guarded the place until around midnight, but then Reed and he had had to respond to an armed robbery at the convenience store near the interstate.
Lately, life in Comanche Creek had been far from peaceful and friendly—even though that was what it said on the welcome sign at the edge of the city limits. Before the spring, it'd been nearly a decade since there'd been a murder. Now, there'd been four.
And because some of those bodies had been dumped on Native American burial ground, the whole town felt as if it were sitting on a powder keg. With the previous murder investigations and the latest one, Reed was operating on a one-hour nap, too much coffee and a shorter fuse than usual.
He glanced around. "How'd you get up here?" he asked the sergeant. "Because I didn't see a vehicle."
"I parked at the bottom of the hill just off the county road. I wanted to get a good look at the exterior of the crime scene before I went inside." She glanced around as well. "How'd you get up here?" she asked him.
"I parked on the back side of the hill." And for the same reason. Of course, that didn't mean they were going to see eye-to-eye on anything else. Reed was betting this would get ugly fast.
"Reed?" someone called out, the sound coming from the cabin.
Reed cursed some more because he recognized that voice. He lowered his gun, huffed and strolled toward the front door. It swung open just as Reed stepped onto the porch, and he came face-to-face with his boss, Mayor Woody Sadler. His friend. His mentor. As close to a father as Reed had ever had since his own dad had died when Reed was seven years old.
But Woody shouldn't have been within a mile of the place.
Surrogate fatherhood would earn Woody a little more respect than Reed would give others, but even Woody wasn't going to escape a good chewing-out. And maybe even more.
"What are you doing here?" Livvy demanded, taking the words right out of Reed's mouth. Unlike Reed, she didn't lower her gun. She pointed the Black-water right at Woody.
Woody eased off his white Stetson, and the rattler tail attached to the band gave a familiar hollow jangle. He nodded a friendly greeting.
He didn't get anything friendly in return.
"This is Woody Sadler. The mayor of Comanche Creek," Reed said, making introductions. "And this is Sergeant Livvy Hutton. A Texas Ranger from New York."
Woody's tired gray eyes widened. Then narrowed, making the corners of his eyes wrinkle even more than they already were. Obviously he wasn't able to hold back a petty reaction either. "New York?"
"Spare me the jokes. I was born in a small town near Dallas. Raised in upstate New York." As if she'd declared war on it, Livvy shoved her gun back into her shoulder holster and barreled up the steps. "And regardless of where I'm from, this is my crime scene, and you were trespassing," she declared to Woody and then fired a glance at Reed to declare it to him as well.
"I didn't touch anything," Woody insisted.
Livvy obviously didn't take his word for it. She bolted past Woody, grabbed her equipment bag from the porch and went inside.
"I swear," Woody added to Reed. "I didn't touch a thing."
Reed studied Woody's body language. The stiff shoulders. The sweat popping out above his top lip. Both surefire signs that the man was uncomfortable about something. "You're certain about that?"
"I'm damn certain." The body language changed. No more nerves, just a defensive stare that made Reed feel like a kid again. Still, that didn't stop Reed from doing his job.
"Then why didn't you answer when I called out?" Reed asked. "And why'd you break the lock on the window and go in there?"
"I didn't hear you calling out, that's why, and I didn't break any lock.